The $70 Billion Spectrum Rip-Off

As many viewers struggle with the transition to digital TV, commercial broadcasters can look forward to a massive giveaway

Megan Tady

Digital television – or DTV for short – is being hailed for its pristine picture, sound quality and explosion of new channels. Judging from the graphic of a flower and a nearly cloudless sky on the FCC’s digital television Web site, sunny days are ahead for TV viewers. 

What do broadcasters really plan to do with the new channels? Air reruns and weather reports.

Now, it’s never nice to rain on someone’s parade, but bad news is bad news. Because when it comes to the DTV transition, the forecast looks gloomy. 

On February 17, just five months from now, all U.S. analog TV stations will switch to digital broadcasting, creating thousands of new channels. (Digital broadcast technology allows several separate TV channels to be compressed into subchannels for what is called multicasting.”) Broadcasters may go from the one channel they broadcast on now to potentially four or more using the same license – meaning you might soon find yourself flipping from channel 4 to channels 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 .

Or, you may not be flipping channels at all. Despite efforts by the FCC and others to raise public awareness, there are gaps in the population that haven’t gotten converter boxes and could be left with static on their old TVs after mid-February. A lack of coordination between federal agencies handling public education has only worsened the situation, and there’s a lack of direct assistance for people who need help hooking up their converter boxes and ensuring they work properly. 

Most low-power commercial TV stations (including many Spanish-language stations) are not making the DTV transition in February. But the vast majority of converter boxes won’t carry their analog signals, meaning many people will be unable to tune into the news and information they depend on unless they either unplug their converter boxes and go back to their rabbit ears, or only watch the low-power station.

In the midst of this chaos, cable companies are preying on consumers’ confusion, marketing paid cable service as a way to keep their TVs working post-DTV transition. 

What’s missing from this discussion, however, is what’s going to be on these new digital TV channels.

On February 18, the new channels – on spectrum valued at over $70 billion – will be handed over solely to the current 1,762 U.S. broadcast licensees. But because of the massive giveaway Congress signed off on in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, local communities, entrepreneurs, nonprofit organizations, unions, churches, schools and everyday taxpayers won’t be allowed to set one foot in this new broadcasting game. 

It is often forgotten that the airwaves commercial broadcasters use belong to the public. In return for using this valuable public resource for absolutely free, commercial broadcasters have basic public interest obligations” to ensure that programming reflects the needs and desires of the public . It’s no secret that broadcasters have been shirking this duty for years and that lawmakers and the FCC have failed to hold broadcasters accountable. 

Bruce Dixon, editor of Black Agenda Report, has been one of the few reporters to sound the alarm over this boondoggle. In his article Grand Theft Digital; How Corporate Broadcasters Are Hijacking Digital TV,” he said the FCC’s DTV Web site is devoid of any mention of the taxpayers’ gift to industry.

The question of who owns the limited resource of broadcast airwaves, who is entitled to broadcast licenses and under what conditions, and in whose interest the public spectrum must be managed are entirely absent from the FCC’s public awareness’ programs,” Dixon writes.

The DTV transition could be an incredible opportunity for the government to instill these public interest obligations in the new channels and to ensure that other voices often ignored and underrepresented by Big Media – such as local, independent and minority voices – get to use some of the new channels for different programming. 

Instead, there are very few public service obligations, no caveats for more local news reporting and no mandates for channels to be owned by minority and female broadcasters. All we have to show for the dramatic digital expansion of broadcasting on public airwaves is a hard-won compromise to guarantee some children’s programming.

For over a decade, broadcasters have been selling the DTV transition to Capitol Hill, promising innovative programming and entire channels devoted to children’s shows and local news. But what do broadcasters really plan to do with the new channels? 

Air reruns and weather reports.

As Carrie Biggs-Adams of the Communications Workers of America told Black Agenda Report: Broadcasters have no idea how they will fill the extra channels they’ll get on February 18, 2009. They don’t have the content and they don’t have a clue. There are only so many reruns, reality shows and home shopping networks.”

Aside from raking in more ad revenue on their new channels, some broadcasters may not even see an incentive to offer compelling new programming that could drive audiences away from highly rated shows. 

It’s just a pure business decision,” James McQuivey, a media analyst with Boston-based Forrester Research, told the National Journal. Do I run the risk of rolling out new channels that will dilute my audience base?”

Rather than allowing broadcasters to squat on spectrum with low-quality, mind-numbing shows and old movies of the week, the government should enforce a use it or lose it” policy. Unless broadcasters devote their channels to useful and original programming for the public on the airwaves they use for free, they should have to give it to someone else who will. 

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Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InThe​se​Times​.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.
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